Matthew Norman: For Michael Gove, the Pol Pot of education, every year is Year Zero

In isolation, the Meisterplan of for-profit schools looks fraught with problems. As part of the wider picture in which the public service ethos is dying, it is deeply depressing

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So fecund is the Education Secretary’s mind, that you cannot return from a fortnight’s holiday without a sense of anxiety about what you may have missed. It could be that Michael Gove has recently floated a notion to replace all modern languages with ancient Minoan, or a masterplan to introduce the cadet corps to primary schools and have every five-year-old drilled daily in the use of the bayonet. He may have decreed that no historical event after Agincourt may be taught.

For the Pol Pot of education, it is forever Year Zero. Under Govey’s permanent revolution, a proposal to birch any child caught within 12.5 metres of a pineapple would come as small surprise. Any or all of the above brainwaves may have escaped me, and apologies if so, but as far as I can tell the Gussie Fink-Nottle doppelganger has been oddly indolent on the kite-flying front of late. All intensive research unearths, in fact, is a pair of trifling putative tweaks to the system. One is lengthening the school day and shortening the holidays, to bring education into line with working life. The other, revealed by this newspaper yesterday, is to outsource the running of schools to profit-making businesses.

In the utopian future that is Goveworld, the two might dovetail exquisitely. The nation’s 11-year-olds would reach their desks at 6.30am and put in two hours of Call Centre Studies, handling complaints about faulty satellite dishes from angry account holders in Mumbai, before conventional lessons begin. This has obvious appeal. Apart from the financial benefits to the venture capitalists who have superceded the board of governors, this would prepare children for the shifting balance of economic power in the world they will inherit.

But there goes that lefty-liberal knee of mine again, jerking itself into a frenzy of facetiousness at an innovation that may have the potential to raise standards. For decades, this country has shivered beneath the familiar cloud of apathetic despair at the failure to adequately educate a vast proportion of its young, and the nagging suspicion that improved exam grades and pass rates have gone hand in hand with increased ignorance.

The most scientific method of comparing generations is, of course, to study quiz shows past and present. Anyone who has seen a 1985 Bullseye episode, and noted the ease with which contestants answered Jim Bowen’s questions on Enver Hoxha and the American Civil War, may have been reminded of Labour MP David Lammy’s 2009 appearance on Celebrity Mastermind; the tour de force in which the then Higher Education minister told John Humphrys that Henry VIII was succeeded on the throne by Henry VII, and that the Marie who won the Nobel Prize for her work on radioactivity was Antoinette. Such other yardsticks as disturbing rates of illiteracy and innumeracy, although clearly less significant, are also a concern. On this basis, it feels churlish not to welcome every fresh challenge to the status quo, or at the very least to give Govey’s innovations an open-minded hearing.

With for-profit schools, this does not comes easy. In isolation, the Meisterplan looks fraught with problems, as a leader article explored yesterday. Viewed as a part of the wider picture, in which the public service ethos is dying before our eyes, it is deeply depressing. There was a time, for instance, when NHS consultants worked weekends for no more compelling reason than that there were sick people who needed them. Now they need their mouths stuffing with gold to attend hospitals.

Once, to work for the BBC was to hold a relatively well-paid job that came with a vague sense of public duty. Today we read of executive pay-offs that would look pretty obscene in the private sector. In times past, it was regarded as an immense privilege to be an MP. Now the rapacious fools are willing to take a 15 per cent rise on the basis that they are poorly paid compared with the private sector.

From the ruins of the Second World War came the unanimously held beliefs that serving the public was an honour, and that some things are too sacred to be left to commerce. Systematically eroded since Mrs Thatcher, and then New Labour’s serious relaxedness about filthy riches, these  beliefs are now under intense attack from a senior coalition partner that opportunistically regards lingering financial pain as a chance to shrink the state to the point of destruction.

That a similar for-profit scheme recently suffered a setback in Sweden, with the failure of the country’s largest private-provider of schools, is no guarantee that it could not work here. But nor is it a hint of the only inherent danger. It is all too easy to imagine venture capitalists cherrypicking successful schools, expanding them exponentially, and sucking in enough talented teachers and bright students to leave those in nearby failing schools more isolated and forgotten than ever.

So if Mr Gove is serious about the idea, here’s a suggestion. Have a ten-year trial period in which private firms were limited to taking over schools judged by Ofsted to be seriously failing. Only if they can turn these around while making a profit would they be permitted to bid for others. That would be a useful test of their benign motives as well as their educational acumen.

Now there will be those who instinctively dismiss the entire notion as nothing more than blind devotion to the free market, and who doubt Michael Gove’s motives. I prefer to give his sincerity the benefit of the doubt, though it may be worth noting that a close friend of his shows a similarly keen interest in for-profit education.

Indeed, Rupert Murdoch is moving into this lucrative field, the potential annual value of which he is on record estimating at $500m, in the United States. News UK has been wedging up to help those in sympathy with its commercial aim to get elected to local school boards.

There is of course no suggestion that the Pol Pot of the classroom has been influenced by his chum, or wishes to ingratiate himself with him by opening up a free-flowing revenue stream. Since Govey could not have been clearer about his utter lack of ambition for power, what point could there be in peddling policies that win the gratitude of Murdoch’s British titles? This is just one of those eerie coincidences that give life its savour. However, with any innovation that excites the philanthropic attentions of Rupert Murdoch, history counsels the utmost caution.

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